It’s hard to pick a pivotal moment in this week’s The Walking Dead episode “Them.” The pace of the episode mimics the slow, exhausted trudging along of our intrepid heroes. They are weary, literally starving and without water. When Maggie (Lauren Cohan) asks Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), “How much longer do we have,” she’s not asking how many more miles to D.C.; she is asking how much longer can they carry on before they grow too weak to carry on, thereby becoming zombie fodder. In so many ways, the survivors are dying: physically, both as their numbers and strength decrease, and emotionally as despair knocks relentlessly at the door.
The opening scenes of “Them” paint the vivid reminder that the line between the living and not-dead is growing thinner and thinner. As the weakened Team Rick dispose of an attacking horde of Walkers by drawing them in and moving out of the way while the zombies fall harmlessly off a bridge, the slow, shambling motions of Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira), and everyone else create a striking parallel between the really dead and the nearly dead.
In fact, Rick says it late in the episode: “We are the walking dead,” recalling his grandfather’s story of survival during (presumably) World War II. “I died,” he’d told the young Rick, “the moment I entered enemy territory.” And each day, he would remind himself that he was dead, surprising himself at the end of the day that he wasn’t. Assuming your death is imminent, in a way, had helped him survive. Do what had been necessary, and carry on. If you’re already essentially dead, whatever lines you have to cross, whatever horrible things you must do to survive don’t matter.
Rick’s bit of philosophy counter’s Daryl‘s “Consumed” (Season 5A) insistence to Carol that they are not dead yet. On the other hand, I’m not sure Daryl would agree with himself, at least not at the start of the episode.
“Them” finds the gang at its lowest point. They’ve lost, in quick succession, two vital members of the group: “Beth” (Emily Kinney) and Tyreese (Chad Coleman). They are all grieving but none so much as Beth’s sister Maggie, Tyreese’s sister Sasha and Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus, in a beautifully understated, but emotional performance).
Small rays of hope– present themselves, but is the group is too close to despair to appreciate them? To grasp onto them or even trust them? — bottled water left by an anonymous “friend”; a summer thunderstorm, which gives them only just barely enough to survive another day, and then turns violent, only to spare them while everything around them is torn apart by the storm’s fury; a small broken music box, fixed by Daryl, only to break again, and then to magically work as a new (possible) ray of hope appears with the dawn of a new day. A lonely barn–not overrun–that might be a port in the terrible storm to come.
In the aftermath of losing both her father and sister, Maggie appears half-dead trudging with her comrades along the highway. It seems to me as she fights off a zombie that her efforts are half-hearted, automatic. She knows no other way than to kill them. But I’m pretty certain that she really doesn’t care one way or the other if she dies or if she lives. She is haunted by her sister, seeing her image in a bound and gagged zombie in an automobile trunk. She has lost Beth twice: once after the farm, and again watching her corpse being carried from the Atlanta hospital in the midseason finale.
Glenn is powerless in helping Maggie cope. Strong, determined, smart, Maggie has been cut down, her soul withered into despair. Yes, they all know grief, and Maggie has been able to cope with loss after loss (as have they all), but this is different. Beth’s death (and Tyreese’s) comes on the heels of defeat after defeat. What is the point of going on?
Maggie’s journey during the episode brings her beside the also-grieving Sasha, whose response to losing her brother is both anger–and a burning desire not to be him. Sasha will attack, and be ruthless, not thinking twice about taking out a zombie–or a dog. She rails at anyone who might characterize her as being like her brother. But Sasha’s response to grief is no less destructive. Being a one-woman killing machine endangers not only Sasha but puts at risk the entire survivor group.
Daryl’s response to loss has been to shut down completely, hiding within a stoic mask. Daryl has known so little connection in his life, and in a short period of time has lost both home and Beth, whom for Daryl had represented the last glimmer of hope in a hopeless existence. As much as Daryl had saved Beth in the aftermath of the prison, Beth, as Carol points out, had also saved him, allowing him to see a path out of darkness that has returned with a vengeance.
He will allow no one near–not even Carol, who understands him–who knows what lies ahead for him if he does not surface from his withdrawal. I imagine that Daryl’s response to pretty much everything in his life has been to cocoon himself within, protecting what remains from any sort of emotional connection. It’s what’s allowed him to survive a neglectful mother, a brutal father–and likely had allowed him to keep (buried deeply inside) some thread of his humanity.
But now what? Fortunately Carol will be there for him as he works out his grief, whether he wants it or not. And I think Daryl realizes there is little he can hide from her–no more than her tough-guy exterior hides her own life of pain from him. She will not let him sink too far. She will remind him (and probably will have to get in his face to do it) that they do get to start over–because “they have to.” They have no choice.
I loved the sequence at the barn: the howling storm: both terrifying and life saving, giving them much-needed water, vanquishing the zombie threat, and ultimately presenting Maggie and Sasha with a beautiful sunrise as the storm goes off to the east. The night of the storm, of course pulls all the individuals, all lost in their personal grief, starvation, despair, into a “them”–a group. Each of “them” joining Daryl in keeping out the danger on the other side of the metaphorical (and literal) barn door. Daryl cannot do it alone, and slowly, as each of them comes awake, they join one by one: a team, stronger for being together than fighting the demons alone.
So…what about Mr. Clean Cut, cleaned up stranger? Is he the guy who’d left the water on the roadside? Hmm… What do you think? Do you think he represents salvation or their destruction?
We’ll discuss tomorrow night on an all-new Let’s Talk TV Live, so do join us at 8:00 ET on the Blogcritics Radio Network.